The dilemma is presented immediately. In chapter one of the Bhagavad Gita, the military leader Arjuna stands poised at the critical moment before an epic battle. Plagued by doubt, he finds he cannot fight; he cannot bring himself to kill. He turns to his friend and charioteer, Krishna, and divulges that his heart is grieving and filled with despair. We, as readers, easily identify with Arjuna’s overwhelming reservations, and it is to the surprise of many Western readers that the God Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight.
Krishna begins by consoling Arjuna, turning his thoughts away from the mortal bodies on the battlefield, toward the eternal and absolute God. Krishna suggests that, in seeking God, Arjuna will come to comprehend his role in the battle. As Arjuna questions, and listens to Krishna, he learns of numerous paths to God. “Hear now the wisdom of Yoga,” Krishna says, “Path of the Eternal and freedom from bondage.”
The path to God is called “Yoga,” although this word refers to different types of yoga (different paths to God) at different points within the Gita. It could even be said that these different paths illuminate different concepts of God and God’s relationship to Man.
THE YOGA OF WISDOM IN WORK
Early on, Krishna reveals the path of Karma Yoga, the yoga of action: “Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work. Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or in failure.” (Bhagavad Gita, II: 47-48)
The message is that Man’s work is to be true to his dharma, while letting his actions be free from the bonds of desire. A man whose work is free from these bonds of attachment attains
what Krishna terms “the Supreme,” experiencing God in selfless action. In transcending the transient, we are reminded that life is eternal and the body is not.
Arjuna’s dharma is that of a warrior, and so he must fight. Krishna reminds him that all men on the battlefield must physically die sooner or later, but their souls will never die. The soul is beyond the power of the material world.
This path of action, of working with devotion, has dharmic consequences by setting an example that helps others find their way to God. (III: 20-21)
THE YOGA OF VISION
Next, Krishna speaks of the path of Jnana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge: “For if a man thinks of the Spirit Supreme with a mind that wanders not, because it has been trained in Yoga, he goes to that Spirit of Light.” (VIII: 8)
In Jnana Yoga, knowledge is the practice of recognizing and contemplating the presence of God in all things, a meditation on God and the greatness of His infinite divinity. Those who have all the powers of their soul in harmony and the same loving mind for all are delivered from Samsara, and “go into the Supreme.” The union that this path describes presents a concept of God and Man as One.
For Arjuna, meditation can bring the understanding that all combatants on the battlefield rush to their own destruction. He is merely the tool of God. The casualties, because of their own Karma, are destined to be slain even before Arjuna raises his sword. (XI: 33)
THE YOGA OF DEVOTION
Krishna then speaks of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion: “Some … by the grace of the Spirit, see the Spirit in themselves.” (XIII: 24)
Like Arjuna, we are encouraged to take this path of devotion – to take refuge in God’s divine nature at all times. In devotion, whatever we do, eat, give, or offer in adoration, we make an offering to God. By practicing this Yoga, we learn to experience God in all things, achieving “a single oneness of pure love, of never-straying love” for God. Like the paths of action and knowledge, this path takes us to the Supreme.
For Arjuna, devotion can assuage his doubt so that he can fight, and in firm faith can say “Thy will be done.”
These Yogas represent three seemingly different and separate paths to God. But both the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita state that these different paths interconnect. The Yogas of Action, Knowledge and Devotion cannot exist separately – the practice of one inevitably incorporates and promotes the development of the others. All three Yogas stress the importance of renunciation, to break away from selfish attachments that hold us apart from God. Each path shows us unique ways to shed these attachments. And each path ultimately brings us to the same destination: a unity with God.
Although my understanding of the Gita evolves and expands the more I am exposed to it, I sometimes think my greatest insight into its meaning occurred when I read of Arjuna’s plight for the first time. When Krishna was introduced as Arjuna’s charioteer, I immediately recalled a “charioteer” reference from the Upanishads, and found it in the Katha: “Know Atman as Lord of a chariot, and the body as the chariot itself.” I thought it interesting that in The Upanishads, the charioteer is Atman, while in the Gita, the charioteer is Krishna, synonymous with Brahman. In remembering that Atman and Brahman are one, I entertained the notion that Arjuna might not be having this momentous discussion with an external entity (Krishna), but with his own eternal soul (Atman/Brahman). It follows that, if the conversation is internal, then the battle at the focus of the discussion might be internal as well. Krishna supports this idea by repeatedly using battle as a metaphor:
“There is a war that opens the doors of heaven. Happy the warrior whose fate is to fight such war.” (II: 31-32)
“Be a warrior and kill desire, the powerful enemy of the soul.” (III: 43)
“Kill therefore with the sword of wisdom the doubt born of ignorance that lies in the heart.” (IV: 42)
For me, the battle-as-allegory removes every reservation regarding the question “Should Arjuna Fight?” If the enemy is Man’s “desire” and “the doubt born of ignorance” – the very things that keep us from God – then we are all warriors in a battle that is unquestionably just.